The Unthinkable Becomes Thinkable

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

A little over a week ago, I wrote that hundreds of thousands of teachers and learners were engaged in online education, most for the first time. In a week, the unthinkable has become thinkable, and 1.5 billion teachers and learners have begun participating in the largest beta test in the history of education. I learned about the actual size of this tectonic shift at an online summit on higher education that included, among others, Eric Yuan, the CEO of Zoom; Saul Khan, the founder of Khan Academy; and Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education. By the end of the conversation I couldn’t help but wonder: after so many false starts, will digital learning finally begin to fulfill its promise of increased access and lower costs? I took these key data points away from the online summit:

  • Zoom has become, almost overnight, the de facto utility for virtually everything online from K-12 and college classes to fitness sessions and family gatherings. Security and privacy for the platform is a growing issue; Zoom is scrambling to shore things up, but there is no doubt that the innovations yet to come will be done primarily over the Zoom platform. It works for online cocktail parties as well.
  • The COVID 19 crisis has catalyzed massive on-the-fly enhancements and fixes in educational technology. Zoom executives said features and fixes that previously took weeks or months are being implemented in days, and iterations take place continuously thereafter. Saul Khan and his colleagues are developing entire K-12 curricula on the fly and receiving instant feedback from anxious parents who have involuntarily become homeschool teachers.
  • Coursera is making its Coursera for Campus product, involving 2100 courses, available for free. Schools in the US and abroad are using them to temporarily fill holes in their curricula. Stunningly, Coursera usage is up 350% within the last three weeks.
  • Online foreign language platforms have become quite advanced over the past five years. Recently everyone from K-12 schools to colleges and universities has implemented these learning programs to provide for continuity of instruction during the shutdown.

The sheer number of online teachers and learners, combined with the incredibly low incremental costs associated with serving them, suggests that digital learning might actually increase access and decrease costs up and down the educational continuum. But three weeks out, there are still more questions than answers. Fortunately, best practices for addressing these questions are emerging and, if continued, may lead to profound changes in our society at the very time we need them most.
Some of the most interesting questions about digital learning revolve around a troubling development reported on my own campus where virtually all of the courses taught during the spring semester are now online. Kelly Hogan, a nationally recognized leader in the use of technology to create an inclusive classroom, reports that in her large biology class only around 4% of students have not reconnected since she has gone exclusively online. Four percent is a great number but it comes in a class I would expect to lead the pack in terms of student participation. Anecdotally, the expectation is that the average dropout rates in all classes will be closer to 10%. Aggressive efforts are underway to identify and contact these dropouts, but we are all interested in learning more.
To begin with, is the dropout number closer to 4% or 10%? Will the dropout number partially correct itself later on in the semester? Is this drop-out rate at UNC aberrational or typical of schools considered peers? Is this level of participation similar for different kinds of schools such as small privates and less select publics? What are the socioeconomic characteristics of those who drop? Are non-participants disproportionately less privileged and caught on the wrong side of the digital divide? Are classes that have clearly defined and graded deliverables due throughout the semester less likely to have low participation and drop rates than those with just one exam at the end of the semester? Are synchronous or asynchronous classes better attended? By the end of the semester, colleges across the country will begin to have answers to these questions.
Learning from the involuntary beta test of the spring is more critical than I realized in my last blog, where I predicted the fall semester would involve a process of attempting to return to normal. That is not going to happen. A survey of college presidents taken in late March found that 36% believe there will be serious disruption in the fall. Absent the development of a vaccine in record time, some form of social distancing will be part of campus life for some time to come and some level of online classes will be required.
Best practices for online learning on the fly can be characterized in two words: bottom-up. The classes themselves are what innovation professors like me call Minimally Viable Products (MVPs) that are a first iteration designed to get the job done but also to start learning about how to do things better. In most cases, the classes were designed in a week and will evolve over the semester based on real-time experience and feedback.  Such an approach is generally unheard of in academia where course planning often begins a semester or year in advance, and all of the sessions are carefully orchestrated long before they begin. That’s fine for polishing the apple but it doesn’t work when rapid innovation is required. So prototype, listen, test, listen and keep testing and listening is the order of the day as far as course design is concerned.
Equally important are the voices at the table when decisions about online learning are being made—and they will be made often in the coming months. It is critical that those on the front lines with deep experience not only participate but assume leadership as institutional policies governing digital learning are being established. By front line, I mean faculty who are experienced Zoom users and those that have employed technology to teach large classes in innovative ways. It is also important to have voices at the table that advocate for students who might otherwise be marginalized or unintentionally disadvantaged by otherwise good-intentioned policies. Innovative teaching is not necessarily the route to top administrative positions at most colleges and universities, so it will take an intentional effort to include the right people if good decisions about online classes are made.
Getting this right has never been more critical. If digital learning can, in fact, fulfill the promise of increasing access while decreasing costs, then post-secondary education for a much larger portion of our population can become a reality. My colleague, Eric Johnson and I are exploring the dimensions of that opportunity in light of the groundbreaking new book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Stay tuned for more on our work on that subject.


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